When I bought the stand up paddle board earlier this summer, one of the things that had me juiced was seeing people surfing waves on SUPS. Not just waves like ocean or occasional lake waves, but those that are found in rivers. I did some research to see what was around us and found a basic whitewater park less than an hour from home. Another I found, Wausau Whitewater, didn’t allow SUPs, but did have whitewater kayaking lessons, something I’ve been wanting to try for a long time. I recruited my eldest, registered us, and we headed out on a father-son road trip, 4 hours to Wausau.
Wausau Whitewater Park is located in downtown Wausau, Wisconsin. The park follows a 1/3 mile stretch of the Wisconsin River, and can be used on scheduled release days of a dam upstream. The rapids created cover the I-III class range, ending in a stretch of flat water. A paved path allows for easy return to a series of put-in points, which enter the river at a variety of difficulty levels. Note that, if you want to start up at the dam, a street crossing is required – there is a well-marked crosswalk and traffic wasn’t heavy the weekend we were there. The release flows are scheduled; pay a fee and the course is yours. If you’re new to the sport or need to brush up on skills or confidence, there are morning and afternoon whitewater kayaking classes that take you from the flat water at the base of the run to whitewater at the top if you’re good enough. If you want to build your freestyle skills, once a summer the Jackson Freestyle Clinic is held over 2 days.
The classes are run by Whitecap Kayak, a family-run company out of Michigan’s UP. We signed up for an afternoon Saturday class and one Sunday morning, allowing us to stay just the one night. We stayed at the nearby Jefferson Street Inn, a very nice establishment, but next time we’ll probably make use of the free (yes free) camping in a grassy meadow right at the Whitewater Park. We drove 4 hours Saturday and 4 hours back Sunday, and I would suggest that’s about the max that would be worth it, at least for me.
While the registration is for a specific level class, once we gathered we were separated into beginning and intermediate groups. There were an overabundance of instructors, so we always felt safe and had someone to ask questions of at all times. The groups could also be made smaller or larger at any time, depending on everyone’s progress. All gear is provided – just show up in your bathing suit, water shoes, and you’re good to go. We wore tech shirts under our PFDs, to allay any chafing, and we could have worn light wetsuits on Sunday morning for the initial chill, but otherwise everything is covered. We expected the water to be cold, but it was plenty warm both days, more so than expected for sure.
Day 1 for us started with safety and dry land skills, then into the water for wet exit (self-rescue), the basic paddling forwards and backwards, working up to leaning the kayak, then ferrying across the current. We finished the day with an attempted run down the lower third (?) of the river, down 3 rapids. I made the first rapid, immediately flipped, and enjoyed a ride sans boat down the remainder of the run, which was fun in its own way.
Day 2 was some quick practice of earlier learned skills, then some more advanced skills such as the eddy turn (entering an eddy, or calmer water at the side of a rapid) and peeling out (entering the current from the eddy). This allows the paddler to control the descent, to preview upcoming obstacles, and to wait for others in a group. While I understood the concepts, I never quite got it down, especially during the actual ride down the river. The morning ended with several runs, each time resulting in me being dunked, but that didn’t lessen the fun factor at all. We also started learning rolls, essential if you don’t want to exit each time you flip your kayak – a goal for next time.
I would wholeheartedly endorse finding a whitewater kayaking class near you, if it’s at all possible. I didn’t expect to find one so close, fairly priced, and so much fun. I learned that whitewater kayaking is, like so many sports, technique dependent, so without practice I’m unlikely to get better rapidly. Those of you that follow me on IG and FB know I bought an older model whitewater kayak (The Banana Boat), so I’ll try to head over to the whitewater park closer to home to see if I can get some regular practice in. I’m also contemplating returning to the Wausau Whitewater Park for more lessons – if not this Summer then definitely next year.